A common evaluation question for the health of a church is “are you growing?” The underlying assumption is that God wants churches to grow, and I agree—with an important qualifier as to the type of growth God seeks.
Growth is usually measured by addition in the American church. Indeed, the Bible supports the idea that churches pursuing God’s heart should anticipate numerical addition. Consider how Acts 2:47 punctuates the experience of the first post-Pentecost believers with this summary statement: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” As Jesus puts it in John 15:8, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” The church is called to more than preserving existing believers; it is called to reproduce new disciples (Matthew 28:19-20).
The danger, however, is missing the full context of Jesus’ commission. Jesus called His church not just to “go and get bigger,” but to “go and get wider.” Consider His words in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Notice the emphasis on expansion–the church was to widen its influence, starting in the local community, then the surrounding area, then to cultures beyond their own, and then to the farthest reaches of the world.
In the first several chapters of Acts, the church grows numerically. Thousands are added to the faith; new ministries are developed; people are healed; needs are met; the church gets bigger in Jerusalem. But that’s the catch—in chapters 2-7, the church remains in Jerusalem. It is adding numbers and seeing great impact there, yes, but is still just in that community. Then, in Acts 8:1, we read a critical statement: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Did you catch the parallel between Acts 1:8 and Acts 8:1? It’s almost as if God is saying, “Church, I am glad to see you getting bigger in that one place, but my instructions were to get wider, not just bigger.”
In a culture enamored with “bigger is better” thinking, it’s important to remind ourselves that in Jesus’ plan, “better is better, and better includes wider.” “Bigger” in any particular location is not to be considered an end of itself; it is to be partnered with “wider” in the economy of God’s Kingdom. We are to get bigger as we go wider—as we intentionally seek to launch new movements of disciples beyond our present location. Indeed, when Jesus instructs persons to pray for workers, it is not just for service within the local church, but for taking the message out into the greater harvest: “He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field (Luke 10:2).’”
Let’s seek God’s guidance not only about how to get larger in one location, but also how to be actively and intentionally involved in multiplying disciple reproduction movements into our “Judea, Samaria, and the world”—the communities near us, the diverse cultures near us but different from us, and beyond. I am convinced that God honors the intent to go wider with greater blessing, growth and impact locally. “Addition versus multiplication” is not an either/or decision; it’s a both/and proposition.